Hossein Nayeri does not dispute that he escaped from the Orange County jail with two other inmates in January 2016, commuting between hotels and hiding in a stolen van before police caught him at San Francisco after a week of manhunts.
There were signs he was proud of the company: he documented the preparations for the escape on a contraband iPhone, occasionally smirking at the camera.
But when Nayeri was finally tried this month for the escape, he denied what authorities had argued all along: that he was controlling his fellow escapees – and a taxi driver who took them across the state – with the strength of his personality and the threat of violence.
“It was a collaborative effort,” said Nayeri, 44. “It wasn’t just a one-man show.”
Jurors on Thursday found Nayeri guilty of the escape, a charge his attorney did not contest, and of stealing a van during his robbery. But jurors acquitted him on the charge of abducting a taxi driver, Long Ma, who said the men threatened him with a gun and held him against his will.
Nayeri was in jail awaiting trial for a gruesome plan to kidnap and torture when he escaped on January 22, 2016, along with two other men facing unrelated violent crime charges, Bac Tien Duong, 43, and Jonathan Tieu, 20.
The men climbed through a cell grate, ascended through a vent on makeshift rungs, and abseiled five stories down to the sidewalk outside the Santa Ana jail.
Duong had arranged for a driver to meet them nearby and take them out of the immediate area, although they soon needed another car. Duong called a 71-year-old freelance taxi driver, Long Ma, who advertised in Vietnamese-language newspapers.
Ma picked up the three men in his Honda Civic outside a Garden Grove restaurant and drove them to a target in Rosemead. In a nearby parking lot, he said, the escapees held him at gunpoint and commandeered his car.
He was with them the following week. He said the men used his ID to check into motels, where he slept next to them. He said the men went to a hotel in San Jose and then Santa Cruz, where he was forced to pose for portraits with the men for reasons he didn’t understand.
He said Duong told him that Nayeri wanted to kill him. Duong took the taxi driver back to Southern California and surrendered. Shortly after, the two remaining fugitives, Nayeri and Tieu, were arrested in San Francisco, where they were living in a stolen white van.
Testifying in his own defense, Nayeri said his original plan was to connect with a driver who would take him to Los Angeles International Airport for a flight to Turkey. He said the driver never showed up and was forced to accompany Duong and Tieu.
“My plan fell apart,” Nayeri said. During cross-examination, he repeatedly refused to name the original driver, and the prosecutor maintained that the man did not exist.
Nayeri insisted that neither he nor the other fugitives had ever had a gun and that Ma stayed with them because they paid him for his time. He was free to leave the hotels if he wished, Nayeri said.
“Ma could move like anyone else,” Nayeri said. “[He was] all alone, smoking, outside, pacing.
Nayeri’s attorney, Michael Goldfeder, pointed to what he called inconsistencies in Ma’s account on the witness stand, such as whether the gun pointed at him was a semi-automatic or a revolver, and whether it was Duong or Tieu who had done it. He said Ma ignored multiple opportunities to flee and contact the police.
“He was part of the whole trip,” Goldfeder said. “He was a willing participant. … There was never a carjacking.
Nor, according to Goldfeder, was his client responsible for stealing a white van from a Los Angeles man the day after the escape, saying Duong stole it on his own without Nayeri’s knowledge.
But Deputy Dist. Atti. David McMurrin argued that Nayeri drove the van, helped change its license plates and tinted its windows to alter its appearance.
Insisting that the fugitives had a gun, the prosecutor noted that police found bullets in the van and that a phone in the possession of the fugitives indicated that they had searched Google for “shooting range” during their flight. The same phone showed multiple searches for Nayeri’s ex-wife, the prosecutor said, an indication of who was using it.
Also found in the van: handwritten to-do lists, including the terms “ID” and “money”. Although Nayeri denied that the notes were his, the prosecutor said a handwritten term – “old man’s story” – meant that Nayeri planned to fabricate a story to make it look like Ma was accompanying them on purpose.
Nayeri’s lawyer argued that “the real mastermind of this case” was Duong rather than Nayeri, but the prosecutor argued that a video of the two men in a hotel room – taken during their escape – clearly showed who was responsible.
In the video, which Nayeri admits was taken right after he punched Duong so hard he feared he had broken his jaw, a muscular Nayeri stands over the other man. Duong, lean, tattooed and shirtless, slumped on the side of a bed in what appears to be a suspicious and subservient position.
Nayeri offers him a cigarette, but takes it away when Duong grabs it. Instead, he puts it in Duong’s mouth and lets him blow on it. Nayeri asks Duong if he considers him a “real brother” and reminds Duong that he saved his life – an apparent reference to Duong’s help as he was swinging on a rope during the prison break.
Nayeri wraps her hand around Duong’s neck and kisses him on the head. He orders Duong to put out the cigarette on his right shoulder, and Duong complies.
On the stand, Nayeri argued that it was Duong’s idea to put out the cigarette on his own skin – a “twisted thing of honour” – and that Duong made a habit of scarring himself with cigarettes. Nayeri’s lawyer described the cigarette gesture as a sort of “gift” to show appreciation to Nayeri, and likened it to a cat bringing its owner a dead mouse.
Nayeri is already serving multiple life sentences for his part in a macabre plan to kidnap and torture the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary. In 2012, Nayeri and two accomplices abducted the man from a Newport Beach home, burned him with bleach, severed his penis and left him tied up in the desert.
The escape, four years later, was a humiliation for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jail. It sparked a week-long manhunt and prompted scrutiny of security protocols.
Duong was convicted for his role in the escape and is serving a 20-year sentence for the crime and for the attempted murder charge that initially put him behind bars. Tieu awaits his trial.
Judge Larry Yellin is expected to convict Nayeri for the March 24 escape.